Prohibition: The Noble Experiment 1920 – 1933
“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water” - W.C. Fields, American comedian and actor
Prohibition was a period of United States history in which the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor was illegal. It led to the first and only time an amendment of the U.S Constitution was repealed. It was a time characterized by speakeasies, glamour, and gangsters and also a time in which even the average citizen broke the law…
After the American Revolution, drinking was on the rise.To combat this, a number of societies were organized as part of a new “Temperance Movement” which attempted to dissuade people from becoming intoxicated. At first, these organizations pushed moderation, but after several decades, the movement’s focus changed to complete prohibition of alcohol consumption. Saloons and taverns came to be viewed as places of debauchery and evil.
18th Amendment and the Volstead Act
In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol, was ratified. It went into effect on January 16, 1920. That night, restaurants and saloons draped their tables in black cloths in acknowledgement of its passing. From one day to the next people didn’t know where to turn. They were out of work and their livelihood was threatened.
Except, there were loopholes. For instance, the 18th Amendment did not mention the actual drinking of liquor- causing many people to purchase large quantities of alcohol before the Prohibition law went into effect a full year later. Also, the Volstead Act allowed alcohol consumption if it was “prescribed by a doctor.” Needless to say, large numbers of new prescriptions were written for alcohol during this time.
Speakeasies and Gangsters
For those who didn’t prepare adequately for the start of the law- or who did not know a “good” doctor- there were illegal ways to get a drink during Prohibition. If you knew where to go, and if you knew the password, such as “Joe Sent Me”: at the “speakeasy”. A speakeasy was the place for people to come in, drink and socialize. For every legitimate saloon that closed as a result of the new law, a half dozen underground palaces- or speakeasies- sprung up. By the middle of the decade there were speakeasies throughout Long Island.
A new breed of gangsters arose during this period, as well. These people took notice of the amazingly high level of demand of alcohol within society and the extremely limited avenues of supply to the average citizen. Within this imbalance of supply and demand, gangsters saw profits. Many gangsters opened up their own speakeasies.
The 21st Amendment is Ratified
On December 5, 1933, after a growing fight put forth by the anti-prohibition movement, and the need for jobs and money brought in by the sale and manufacture of alcohol, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The 21st amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, making alcohol, once again, legal. This was the first and only time in U.S. history that an amendment has been repealed, the 18th Amendment being considered by many as a failed social and political experiment.
Rum Running on the North Shore
While most people think of the South Shore of Long Island as the prime area for rum running, the activity shifted to the North Shore in the early 1920s. Why? Because there were only two Coast Guard boats patrolling the entire North Shore and the coves and terrain made it difficult to be detected. North Shore’s people, businesses, roads and coastal areas were heavily entrenched in rum running.
The reason was while the trip to the rum fleet was longer, it is much safer owing to a “50-mile stretch” of coast which is protected by only two coast guard stations. Further, the high hills along the North Shore are another advantage to rum runners for signaling purposes, “Almost every night, as far as the eye can see, one can make out the flickering lights of the signalers” (the Long Island Eagle, 1924)
Both newspapers and local histories document the stories and lore that became a part of people’s everyday lives on the North Shore. “Every Long Island coastal town has its stories of strange occurrences.” Long Island’s North Shore, from Great Neck to Port Jefferson, is full of documented stories uncovering rum running cartels and the sale of liquor is speakeasies.